Tenacity, intensity, curiosity, and intelligence.
Michael Doughty needed those characteristics, along with serious athletic talent, to make it to arguably the top league in European football, the English Premier League, with London’s Queens Park Rangers. Those same qualities are serving the young Eco-preneur well as he and his partners look to green the athletic apparel market with UK startup Hylo Athletics.
GreenSportsBlog spoke with Doughty about his football career, how it prepared him for starting an athletic apparel company — and a green one at that, and his journey on climate.
GreenSportsBlog: Michael, thanks for joining us. How did you start on your road to making it to the Premier League with Queens Park Rangers? Were you a QPR supporter?
Michael Doughty: I grew up in London, home of QPR. But, like my dad, I was a Nottingham Forest supporter as a kid.
As a player, when I was 5, 6, 7, I was better in my Sunday league than everyone else. When I was 8, I went to a higher-level training center two times per week. The guy who ran it had a contact at Chelsea, which was crazy. I got invited to a trial at the Chelsea Academy when I was 8 or 9 and ended up in their youth system, which meant practices two times per week with games each weekend against the Tottenham and West Ham youth clubs. It was a 90-minute trip each way to the Academy so, I owe my mum a lot.
GSB: How did you end up going from the Chelsea academy system to QPR?
Michael: Each year Chelsea would review your development and let you know if you got to stay with them for the next year. When I was 13 or 14, they told me I was no longer in their future plans.
GSB: What was it like to hear that?
Michael: It was very tough news; I won’t lie to you. Truth is I was not hyper-athletic; I was more of a technically sound, intelligent player. Chelsea was looking for faster, stronger players and that was that.
So, I ended up getting a trial at QPR’s “Center of Excellence”, its second level academy. When I was 15 or 16, I had some breakout performances which earned me a scholarship to their main academy. Football was the priority there, with education more of a secondary thing. So, I fought it — I wanted a strong education and strong football. The club agreed to a hybrid setup. I played with the squad, but I went to a regular school. I think it was the right thing to do, especially when you consider that you basically have a 1 in 10,000 chance of making a living at age 24 playing football when you come out of the academy system.
And it worked. When I was 17, I was called up to the first team in a game at Blackburn Rovers and in for a few minutes at the end as an attacking midfielder. It was very cool.
GSB: What happened next?
Michael: QPR offered me a 3-year contract. This was my chance to get to a regular spot on the first team. But it was going to be a challenge because the club was going through a transition to super-rich owners who dramatically increased their spending on players. When that happens, that means the club favors bringing in established players from other clubs rather than developing young players from the academy.
So, I started getting loaned out to clubs in the Championship (second tier), League One (third tier) and League Two (fourth tier). Which was challenging because I was learning new systems and new teammates all the time.
But then a new manager came in at QPR and the model changed back in favor of young players and so I was brought back into the first team when the club was in the Premier League in 2015.
GSB: Wow! What was that like?
Michael: It was unbelievable but maybe I didn’t appreciate it enough as it was happening.
I’ll never forget the first game. A Tuesday night against Aston Villa at Villa Park. It’s a very special atmosphere at night there.
Anyway, down 1-0 at the half, the manager told me ‘You’re going in about 10 minutes into the second half’. So, I was ready. And all of a sudden, we went from 1-0 down to 3-1 up. I was celebrating with our fans, thinking maybe I’ve made it.
Then Villa scored. And then they scored again for 3-all. And then, in the last minute I got tackled by Joe Cole and broke my foot.
I ultimately recovered physically but that injury really set me back because, when I came back the next season, we had been relegated, and had a new coach who again wanted to go with imported talent. I got frustrated because I wasn’t making enough of a mark.
So, I left QPR and went to Peterborough United in League One. They were kind of a ‘Moneyball’ type of club — they looked for undervalued assets and figured I was one. I liked it OK, but I was falling out of love with the game, to be a big fish in a small pond and needed that magical feeling again if there was any way to find it.
That led me to move to Swindon Town of League Two where I had played before while on loan from QPR. I scored a hat trick on my debut this time around! I stayed two seasons, scoring 27 goals in that time and winning a League Two title.
GSB: So, Swindon Town — and you were promoted up to League One…
Michael: …Well, I had to decide if I wanted to go back up the ladder. League One — I had been there, done that. So, I thought to myself, ‘What do I really want to do next?’ I was no longer the young kid, I was 27. It was 2019. Was I on a track to get back up to the Premier League? It was a hard climb at best. And Hylo Athletic was launching.
I decided I couldn’t do both, so I retired and put all my energies behind Hylo.
GSB: So, how did you come to launch an athletic apparel company? And why one with a sustainable mission?
Michael: My dad, whom I lost when I was 19, was an entrepreneur from a low-income background. So, I grew up around starting businesses. I also enjoyed academics and problem solving. I needed that outlet while I was playing.
As for nature and the environment, I always enjoyed being outside, whether it be playing football or going camping. I felt a certain peace while in nature.
Hylo appealed to me because 1. I would be building something, 2. Its environmental ethos was my ethos, and 3. It was sport, it was for athletes.
Now, there was no way I would be able to start something by myself.
My buddy Jacob Green was the perfect partner. He studied geography and the economics of wildlife whilst at university. He had worked in consumer brands. And he had built a plant-based protein bar company, Misfits Health.
Early one day in 2019, Jacob called me out of the blue and asked me, ‘Which brands do you subscribe to?’ I told him, ‘None, really. There is not a brand that really speaks to me.’
We talked about how adidas and Nike were doing some good things environmentally — the former’s apparel made from ocean waste in partnership with Parley for the Oceans is a good example. But no one, aside from Patagonia, was all-in on the environment in athletic apparel. And they’re not focused so much on elite athletes.
So, Jacob and I thought there would be an opportunity for a brand for athletes and their supporters to win on the pitch and to do right by the planet. This felt right to us and to our third co-founder, John Prescott, a 35-year footwear veteran.
GSB: Prescott sounds like a key guy to have on your team. What makes Hylo running shoes sustainable?
Michael: We have three key principles from a sustainable operations perspective.
#1: Renewable, Resusable Materials. While it’s a constant tightrope walk between form, function and performance, we use PLA corn starch-based fibers. We are committed to reducing the use of petroleum-based materials used in our products. The key thing to stress is that this is an evolving journey, and we won’t get to our goals overnight because a systemic change that is happening across supply chain and raw material suppliers takes some time. That said, Hylo’s in this for the long haul.
#2: Circularity. We take back product at end of life and grind it down to be remade. And we’ll pay someone £10 or $15 if they send it back.
#3: Carbon Negative. We conduct a detailed lifecycle assessment (LCA) to get a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions rating per garment and then we offset twice that amount.
Our product is made in mainland China…
GSB: That seems problematic, no, especially from a human rights point of view?
Michael: I understand your concern but there are some incredible innovations going on in China now when it comes to supply chain. All of our transportation within the country is by automobile, not plane. Everything is shipped by sea, which is better from a GHG emissions perspective than is shipping by air.
Going forward, we want to localize supply chain hubs in key markets which will again reduce GHGs even further.
GSB: I like it. How is Hylo Athletics being funded? And how are you getting the word out?
Michael: Private investors and bootstrapping. We spread the word digitally and through word-of-mouth, with Athletes For Planet, our roster of British athlete endorsers, providing us with a sizable platform of potential followers and consumers.
This is the best part of the job for me for sure!
We’re in an era of reborn athlete activism on many issues, but on climate we have a way to go, in part because of it’s in the world of science and many athletes are uncomfortable about that. So, our approach with athletes is to help them on their climate journey by providing them with a positive statement — by what they wear.
With Athletes For Planet, we’ve built a group of British athletes who wear our product from a wide range of sports, including Leeds striker Patrick Bamford, Olympic windsurfer Saskia Sills and cricketer Joe Cooke.
GSB: …Joe Cooke is an EcoAthletes Champion…
Michael: …Indeed he is! They put their names out there as being supportive of climate action and planetary health and they also endorse the quality of our performance apparel. We believe that our point-of-difference — that Hylo Athletic produces world class performance apparel products in a climate-friendly way — will be a winning one.
GSB: How do you think adidas, Nike and the rest might respond to Hylo Athletic’s “all-in” approach to building a circular economy athletic apparel company?
Michael: Well Lew, the way I look at it is that Hylo Athletic is in a “win-win” situation.
If adidas, Nike and the rest of the competition don’t up their games on the environment and climate, Hylo is well-positioned to become the choice of the increasing number of consumers who expect the companies whose products they buy to be part of the solutions on the environment and climate.
And if they, because of the pressure Hylo Athletics puts on them from an environmental point of view, go all-in, that’s a win for us — and the earth.
GSB: That is a great way to look at it! OK, last question: Talk about the Athletes For Planet film, 5:40 in length, that premiered recently on the Hylo Athletics website.
Michael: We wanted to create an iconic statement that shows the reality of the climate problem; that it’s a current issue, not something for our grandkids. Then we lay out who Hylo Athletics is and how we plan to make a difference by changing mindsets forever.
In our case, that’s through apparel.